Friday, March 2, 2012

Dr. Seuss and the Decline of Western Civilization

I gave the following brief talk recently at my morning men’s group:

I’ve been asked to talk this morning about pride, and this seems like a terribly relevant topic for folks like us, who live in 21st century America. Sometimes I think that no civilization in history has ever fussed quite so much about self-esteem as ours has, or has ever encouraged such a frankly individualistic and self-centered worldview.

Still, it’s worth noting that it was nearly 2500 years ago that Aristotle said, “Pride is the crown of the virtues.” Aristotle’s model for this assertion were mythic heroes like Hector and Achilles, but we can see the fruit of his ethical position all too clearly in violence and brutality of his pupil, Alexander the Great. Christianity for a time curbed these tendencies, but they have more recently begun to roar back.  In the 19th century, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche went even further than Aristotle when he said, “Egoism is the very essence of a noble soul.” This perspective, that the primary goal of a human life is to assert ones own claims, is thus neither new nor entirely unique to our culture. Nevertheless, I do believe that both the extent and the rapidity with which it has come to dominate our society is worthy of comment.

I think we can make clear just how quickly and how firmly our culture has adopted a philosophy of self-centeredness by comparing two well-known books by Theodore Geisel - better known, perhaps, as Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss began writing children’s books back in the late 1930’s, in the run-up to World War II. In 1940, he wrote Horton Hatches the Egg, about the resolute and humble Horton, an elephant tricked into hatching an egg by a lazy and faithless “Mayzie Bird”. Expressing his determination to fulfill his promise, Horton also expressed our society’s then-dominant moral outlook with these words:

I meant what I said, and I said what I meant:
an elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent.

This is stern stuff, full of honesty, loyalty, and self-sacrificial love, and it’s not surprising that the Greatest Generation was raised on it. You don’t survive the Great Depression and World War II without a reasonably stiff backbone.

But shortly before his death in 1991, Dr. Seuss published another book that expresses a quite different perspective. The book is called Oh the Places You’ll Go!, and on every page it reflects the dramatic cultural changes that had taken place since World War II. The book is clever and witty, and I won’t deny that there’s some wisdom in it, but at its heart it seems to endorse a disconcerting self-centeredness. Instead of encouraging faithfulness and loyalty, its theme can be reduced to these words from its opening pages:

You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And you are the guy who'll decide where to go.

Nietszche and the Mayzie Bird would have nodded and approved, of course, but you have to imagine that poor faithful Horton would hardly have hardly known what to make of such an amoral egoism.
Regrettably, this perspective isn’t limited to children’s books. Try reading a typical advice column and note how much of its advice assumes that we need to think both more often and more highly of ourselves. Take a couple dozen newspaper editorials on controversial social issues, such as abortion or gay marriage, and see how rarely they advocate for an increased sense of personal humility, or commend a course of greater self-sacrifice and discipline. How many movies or TV shows have you seen in the last year which said, in effect, “You need to express yourself, be your own person, stop conforming to what other people want you to be”?

But like I said, this emphasis on claiming our own rights is hardly new. It didn’t start with Aristotle or Nietszsche, and it won’t end with either Dr. Seuss or Dear Abby. It started, in fact, in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent suggested to Eve that she might know her own good better than God.

According to Augustine, pride is “the craving for undue exaltation”. In other words, it is the desire to put ourselves first, not just before others, but most especially, before God. Now, it’s critical to remember that God created us for Himself, and that our hearts will always be restless unless they rest in Him. Our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever; and the enjoyment and the glorification go hand in hand. The rest when we serve Him, the restlessness when we abandon Him and exalt ourselves, are not outcomes that God could change if He wanted, but are fundamental expressions of ultimate reality. To know God is to know Him as immeasurably greater than ourselves. God doesn’t demand loyalty to Himself out of any desire for self-aggrandization, as if God Himself were proud, but rather, because that is who He is, and that is who we are. God can’t make us happy without Himself anymore than water can cease to be wet.

Thus, when we become proud, we are by definition separating ourselves from God. We are refusing to know God as God, and when we refuse to acknowledge this fundamental reality, the rest of our faculties degrade in lock step. We don’t see reality as well as we did before; we don’t understand the world as well as we ought. We take things that ought to be first and make them last. We exchange the glory of the incorruptible God for corruptible images and pale imitations.

This, then, was the sin of Adam; and this was the sin of Eve. That it was an apple or some other fruit is almost incidental: the key is that they chose to know good and evil, that is, they chose to decide for themselves what would be good and what would be evil. For whatever unimaginable reason, they placed themselves in the place of God. The serpent spoke as truly as the serpent could: after eating the fruit, they were as gods: they became their own end and desire and satisfaction. This end, of course, was neither desirable nor satisfactory, for when they moved the true God out of His place, the false gods moved in.

And in this sense, as in so many others, we are the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve. We’re on our own; we know what we know; we are the ones who’ll decide where to go. Or in other words, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”. But when we affirm this creed, when we refuse to be ruled by the one true God, we discover that we are ruled instead by the false gods of sex, ambition, and money. We desire to serve only ourselves, and serve instead every intellectual or moral fashion that blows our way. And the result is the sad, tragic history of humanity that we know so well. All the wars and nearly all the famines, all the divorces and affairs, all the rapes and genocides, every terrible crime and every tawdry scandal has its origin in this ineluctable turn toward ourselves and away from God.
There is, of course, only one rescue from this fate, and that is the cross. For our pride can only be moved from its seat at the center of our souls when we know God for who He truly is. And it is in the cross that we see God most truly and most completely. George MacDonald said,

When he died on the cross, he did that, in the wild weather of his outlying provinces, in the torture of the body of his revelation, which he had done at home in glory and gladness.

The only and final cure for our pride is to constantly remind ourselves that the God who dwells in unapproachable light became a human being so that He could light our way for us; that the author of life suffered death out of love for us; that the Creator let His creation crucify Him. If pride, by definition, cuts us off from knowing God, then knowing God, by definition, will begin to heal us of our pride. And to know God, we must know Jesus; and to know Jesus, we must pass under the shadow of the cross.

I wish I had better advice; and if I were less proud myself, I suspect I would. One of the side-effects of humility is that you can understand the world better. But in the meantime, I can only point you - I can only point myself - towards the cross. And given all the pressure we encounter in our culture to move in exactly the opposite direction, we can hardly do this too early or too often.

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